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A discussion about the true meaning of life

A large majority of those writing on life's meaning deem talk of it centrally to indicate a positive final value that an individual's life can exhibit.

  • What seems inescapable is that there is no meaning associated with life other than that acquired by our consciousness, inherited via genes, developed and given content through memes units of culture;
  • Meaning in Life, Philosophical Papers, 34;
  • Indeed, some believe the search for such a principle to be pointless Wolf 1997b, 12—13; Kekes 2000; Schmidtz 2001;
  • Is meaning always identical with purpose?
  • Henry Holt and Company, 1899:

That is, comparatively few believe either that a meaningful life is a merely neutral quality, or that what is of key interest is the meaning of the human species or universe as a whole for discussions focused on the latter, see Edwards 1972; Munitz 1986; Seachris 2009. Most in the field have ultimately wanted to know whether and how the existence of one of us over time has meaning, a certain property that is desirable for its own sake. Beyond drawing the distinction between the life of an individual and that of a whole, there has been very little discussion of life as the logical bearer of meaning.

For instance, is the individual's life best understood biologically, qua human being, or instead as the existence of a person that may or may not be human Flanagan 1996?

Returning to topics on which there is consensus, most writing on meaning believe that it comes in degrees such that some periods of life are more meaningful than others and that some lives as a whole are more meaningful than others perhaps contra Britton 1969, 192. Note that one can coherently hold the view that some people's lives are less meaningful than others, or even meaningless, and still maintain that people have an equal moral status.

Consider a consequentialist view according to which each individual counts for one in virtue of having a capacity for a meaningful life cf. Railton 1984or a Kantian view that says that people have a discussion about the true meaning of life intrinsic worth in virtue of their capacity for autonomous choices, where meaning is a function of the exercise of this capacity Nozick 1974, ch.

On both views, morality could counsel an agent to help people with relatively meaningless lives, at least if the condition is not of their choosing. First, to ask whether someone's life is meaningful is not one and the same as asking whether her life is happy or pleasant. A life in an experience or virtual reality machine could conceivably be happy but very few take it to be a prima facie candidate for meaningfulness Nozick 1974: Goetz 2012, in particular, bites many bullets.

Furthermore, one's life logically could become meaningful precisely by sacrificing one's happiness, e. Second, asking whether a person's existence is significant is not identical to considering whether she has been morally upright; there seem to be ways to enhance meaning that have nothing to do with morality, at least impartially conceived, for instance, making a scientific discovery.

Of course, one might argue that a life would be meaningless if or even because it were unhappy or immoral, particularly given Aristotelian conceptions of these disvalues.

My point is that the question of what makes a life meaningful is conceptually distinct from the question of what makes a life happy or moral, even if it turns out that the best answer to the question of meaning appeals to an answer to one of these other evaluative questions.

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field. One answer is that a meaningful life is one that by definition has achieved choice-worthy purposes Nielsen 1964 or involves satisfaction upon having done so Hepburn 1965; Wohlgennant 1981.

However, for such an analysis to clearly demarcate meaningfulness from happiness, it would be useful to modify it to indicate which purposes are germane to the former. On this score, some suggest that conceptual a discussion about the true meaning of life for grounding meaning are purposes that not only have a positive value, but also render a life coherent Markus 2003make it intelligible Thomson 2003, 8—13or transcend animal nature Levy 2005.

Now, it might be that a focus on any kind of purpose is too narrow for ruling out the logical possibility that meaning could inhere in certain actions, experiences, states, or relationships that have not been adopted as ends and willed and that perhaps even could not be, e. In addition, the above purpose-based analyses exclude as not being about life's meaning some of the most widely read texts that purport to be about it, namely, Jean-Paul Sartre's 1948 existentialist account of meaning being constituted by whatever one chooses, and Richard Taylor's 1970, ch.

These are prima facie accounts of meaning in life, but do not essentially involve the attainment of purposes that foster coherence, intelligibility or transcendence.

It is implausible to think that these criteria are satisfied by subjectivist appeals to whatever choices one ends up making or to whichever desires happen to be strongest for a given person.

In that case, it could be that the field is united in virtue of addressing certain overlapping but not equivalent ideas that have family resemblances Metz 2013, ch. For instance, the concept of a worthwhile life is probably not identical to that of a meaningful one Baier 1997, ch. For instance, one would not be conceptually confused to claim that a meaningless life full of animal pleasures would be worth living.

Knowing that meaningfulness analytically concerns a variable and gradient final good in a person's life that is conceptually distinct from happiness, rightness, and worthwhileness provides a certain amount of common ground. The rest of this discussion addresses attempts to theoretically capture the nature of this good. Supernaturalism Most English speaking philosophers writing on meaning in life are trying to develop and evaluate theories, i. These theories are standardly divided on a metaphysical basis, i.

Supernaturalist theories are views that meaning in life must be constituted by a certain relationship with a spiritual realm. If God or a soul does not exist, or if they exist but one fails to have the right relationship with them, then supernaturalism—or the Western version of it on which I focus —entails that one's life is meaningless.

In contrast, naturalist theories are views that meaning can obtain in a world as known solely by science. Here, although meaning could accrue from a divine realm, certain ways of living in a purely physical universe would be sufficient for it.

  1. His classic case for the right of such belief is in his essay, "The Will to Believe.
  2. My point is that the question of what makes a life meaningful is conceptually distinct from the question of what makes a life happy or moral, even if it turns out that the best answer to the question of meaning appeals to an answer to one of these other evaluative questions.
  3. Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt, S. In many texts, earthly life is described as being filled with pain and sadness, and the only thing that can give the world meaning is taking small joy in the simple pleasures of life while ensuring the survival of the cycle.
  4. It may delay the act by encouraging the thought, "Why kill myself today when I can always do it tomorrow?

Note that there is logical space for a non-naturalist theory that meaning is a function of abstract properties that are neither spiritual nor physical. However, only scant attention has been paid to this possibility in the Anglo-American literature Williams 1999; Audi 2005. The former take some kind of connection with God understood to be a spiritual person who is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful and who is the ground of the physical universe to constitute meaning in life, even if one lacks a soul construed as an immortal, spiritual substance.

The latter deem having a soul and putting it into a certain state to be what makes life meaningful, even if God does not exist. Of course, many supernaturalists believe that certain relationships with God and a soul are jointly necessary and sufficient for a significant existence.

However, the simpler view is common, and often arguments proffered for the more complex view fail to support it any more than the simpler view. The familiar idea is that God has a plan for the universe and that one's life is meaningful to the degree that one helps A discussion about the true meaning of life realize this plan, perhaps in the particular way God wants one to do so Affolter 2007. Fulfilling God's purpose by choice is the sole source of meaning, with the existence of an afterlife not necessary for it Brown 1971; Levine 1987; Cottingham 2003.

If a person failed to do what God intends him to do with his life, then, on the current view, his life would be meaningless. Some argue that God's purpose could be the sole source of invariant moral rules, where a lack of such would render our lives nonsensical Craig 1994; Cottingham 2003.

However, Euthyphro problems arguably plague this rationale; God's purpose for us must be of a particular sort for our lives to obtain meaning by fulfilling it as is often pointed out, serving as food for intergalactic travelers won't dowhich suggests that there is a standard external to God's purpose that determines what the content of God's purpose ought to be but see Cottingham 2005, ch.

In addition, some critics argue that a universally applicable and binding moral code is not necessary for meaning in life, even if the act of helping others is Ellin 1995, 327. Other purpose theorists contend that having been created by God for a reason would be the only way that our lives could avoid being contingent Craig 1994; cf. But it is unclear whether God's arbitrary will would avoid contingency, or whether his non-arbitrary will would avoid contingency anymore than a deterministic physical world.

10 Different Views On The Meaning Of Life

Furthermore, the literature is still unclear what contingency is and why it is a deep problem. Still other purpose theorists maintain that our lives would have meaning only insofar as they were intentionally fashioned by a creator, thereby obtaining meaning of the sort that an art-object has Gordon 1983.

Here, though, freely choosing to do any particular thing would not be necessary for meaning, and everyone's life would have an equal degree of meaning, which are both counterintuitive implications see Trisel 2012 for additional criticisms. Are all these objections sound?

Is there a promising reason for thinking that fulfilling God's as opposed to any human's purpose is what constitutes meaning in life?

The Meaning of Life

Not only does each of these versions of the purpose theory have specific problems, but they all face this shared objection: This objection goes back at least to Jean-Paul Sartre 1948, 45and there are many replies to it in the literature that have yet to be assessed e.

The basic idea is that for a finite condition to be meaningful, it must obtain its meaning from another condition that has meaning. So, if one's life is meaningful, it might be so in virtue of being married to a person, who is important. And, being finite, the spouse must obtain his or her importance from elsewhere, perhaps from the sort of work he or she does.

The Meaning of Life: Early Continental and Analytic Perspectives

And this work must obtain its meaning by being related to something else that is meaningful, and so on. A regress on meaningful finite conditions is present, and the suggestion is that the regress can terminate only in something infinite, a being so all-encompassing that it need not indeed, cannot go beyond itself to obtain meaning from anything else.

And that is God. The standard objection to this rationale is that a finite condition could be meaningful without obtaining its meaning from another meaningful condition; perhaps it could be meaningful in itself, or obtain its meaning by being related to something beautiful, autonomous or otherwise valuable for its own sake but not meaningful Thomson 2003, 25—26, 48.

Nature seems able to ground a universal morality and a discussion about the true meaning of life sort of final value from which meaning might spring. And other God-based views seem to suffer from this same problem. For two examples, some claim that God must exist in order for there to be a just world, where a world in which the bad do well and the good fare poorly would render our lives senseless Craig 1994; cf.

However, the naturalist will point out that an impersonal, Karmic-like force of nature conceivably could justly distribute penalties and rewards in the way a retributive personal judge would, and that actually living together in loving relationships would seem to confer much more meaning on life than a loving fond remembrance.

A second problem facing all God-based views is the existence of apparent a discussion about the true meaning of life. If we think of the stereotypical lives of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa, and Pablo Picasso, they seem meaningful even if we suppose there is no all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good spiritual person who is the ground of the physical world. What is the difference between a deep meaning and a shallow one?

And why think a spiritual realm is necessary for the former? At this point, the supernaturalist could usefully step back and reflect on what it might be about God that would make Him uniquely able to confer meaning in life, perhaps as follows from the perfect being theological tradition. For God to be solely responsible for any significance in our lives, God must have certain qualities that cannot be found in the natural world, these qualities must be qualitatively superior to any goods possible in a physical universe, and they must be what ground meaning in it.

Here, the supernaturalist could argue that meaning depends on the existence of a perfect being, where perfection requires properties such as atemporality, simplicity, and immutability that are possible only in a spiritual realm Metz 2013, chs. Morris 1992; contra Brown 1971 and Hartshorne 1996. Meaning might come from loving a perfect being or orienting one's life toward it in other ways such as imitating it or even fulfilling its purpose, perhaps a purpose tailor-made for each individual as per Affolter 2007.

On the one hand, in order for God to be the sole source of meaning, God must be utterly unlike us; for the more God were like us, the more reason there would be to think we could obtain meaning from ourselves, absent God. On the other hand, the more God is utterly unlike us, the less clear it is how we could obtain meaning by relating to Him. How can one love a being that cannot change? How can one imitate such a being?

What Is The Meaning Of Life?

Could an immutable, atemporal, simple being even have purposes? Could it truly be a person? And why think an utterly perfect being is necessary for meaning?

Why would not a very good but imperfect being confer some meaning? If one lacks a soul, or if one has a soul but relates to it in the wrong way, then one's life is meaningless.

There are two prominent arguments for a soul-based perspective. The first one is often expressed by laypeople and is suggested by the work of Leo Tolstoy 1884; see also Hanfling 1987, 22—24; Morris 1992, 26; Craig 1994. Tolstoy argues that for life to be meaningful something must be worth doing, that nothing is worth doing if nothing one does will make a permanent difference to the world, and that doing so requires having an immortal, spiritual self.

Many of course question whether having an infinite effect is necessary for meaning e. Others point out that one need not be immortal in order to have an infinite effect Levine 1987, 462for God's eternal remembrance of one's mortal existence would be sufficient for that. The other major rationale for a soul-based theory of life's meaning is that a soul is necessary for perfect justice, which, in turn, is necessary for a meaningful life.

Life seems nonsensical when the wicked flourish and the righteous suffer, at least supposing there is no other world in which these injustices will be rectified, whether by God or by Karma.

Something like this argument can be found in the Biblical chapter Ecclesiastes, and it continues to be defended Davis 1987; Craig 1994. However, like the previous rationale, the inferential structure of this one seems weak; even if an afterlife were required for just a discussion about the true meaning of life, it is not obvious why an eternal afterlife should be thought necessary Perrett 1986, 220. Work has been done to try to make the inferences of these two arguments stronger, and the basic strategy has been to appeal to the value of perfection Metz 2013, ch.

Perhaps the Tolstoian reason why one must live forever in order to make the relevant permanent difference is an agent-relative need for one to honor an infinite value, something qualitatively higher than the worth of, say, pleasure. And maybe the reason why immortality is required in order to mete out just deserts is that rewarding the virtuous requires satisfying their highest free and informed desires, one of which would be for eternal flourishing of some kind Goetz 2012.